40 days Over 40 Smiles…a year later- By Tracy Kakyo

Tracy’s blog can be followed here

A couple of years out of University most young ladies are occupied with thoughts of good jobs, more studies, the latest fashions, relationships and the best hang outs. Esther Kalenzi is no different except for one other thing; her compulsion to make a difference in the lives of orphaned children.

Last Lent season, drawing on her desire to do more and her inherent love of children, an idea was born to Esther. She would contact as many of her friends as she could manage, and request them to donate all that they could. Whatever she received she had meant to send to orphanages and pediatric wards during the Easter weekend. It was a big dream she says, but it was also perfect timing. Seasons such as these evoked the spirit of giving in most. When Esther set up the Facebook group called Forty Days over forty smiles on February 27th, she had no idea as to the sort of revolution she had started among people her age. These are young people, barely into their first jobs with so little to give and yet so much, as she was yet to realize.

The Facebook page Forty Days over Forty Smiles took a turn of its own. She had invited her friends, who’d invited their friends and those had also invited their own friends. She did not know everybody, but she figured, the more the merrier.  On the page Esther had asked whoever had anything to spare from money, to clothes and books to bring them forward. After doing a little research and asking around, she got to visit two orphanages “Make the Children Smile” and God’s Grace Orphanage.

By the time Easter came along, Esther along with her friends had managed to raise 3.1 million Uganda shillings (most of which trickled in the last 10 days). The money was used to buy much-needed food, books and other utilities. Whatever else was donated (sacks of clothes and shoes) in addition to the money was split between the two orphanages. It was a happy Easter for the children but it was also clear that God’s Grace Orphanage of Kyebando was going to need more help. Sporadic donations were all they had depended on in the past unlike the other which had a Church Cell dedicated to it.

The forty days had come and gone but the needs of the children had remained and so had Esther’s compulsion. “The children had real needs…and now they had my number, I could not ignore them”, she says. The Facebook page stayed open. Monthly breakfasts with the children were set up to all who could be present. “We wanted to give them a touch of the outside world; of family”. The breakfasts were good but they would not solve the problems that occurred in the interim and it’s for this reason that the charity bazaar idea came up. The response to Esther’s request for donations for a fundraising bazaar was overwhelming; greater than she had expected. There are days when she ended up keeping the sacks of clothes under her desk at work and having to borrow her mother’s car to ferry the things back home in preparation for August 4th. Friends helped and the owner of a bakery near her workplace allowed her to use the premises as a drop-off. Mobile money became important too. Strangers approached her and trusted her to deliver whatever they donated, she was humbled. Esther and her team were able to raise a little over 5 million in a day selling secondhand clothes and renting out tables after managing to acquire rent free space at Lugogo.

At the thought that it has been a year since the project started, Esther smiles, “It feels like yesterday”. The children have grown in number from 70 to 118. They are not all orphans. Some children are sent there by parents who cannot take care of them but the host, Mariah Kiwumulo never turns anyone down. Esther is not in position to either because before her team came along, Mariah was managing just fine. These days when my phone rings, I worry…it could be anything from a chicken pox outbreak to the flu. There are days when I will openly guilt trip my friends into donating at least five thousand shillings so I can take a child to hospital from Kyebando. Most days we have wonderful volunteers other days are not so easy, people are busy; understandably so. Beginning of school terms can be overwhelming because the children will need at least 3 million for school fees alone, then there are food and classroom requirements. We are managing the best way we can. It is all about friends of friends and general goodwill…and Facebook.

Getting the bigger companies to sponsor their events has been close to impossible, Esther admits. She has not given up though. She understands that it will take a while to get her cause tabled or taken seriously but in the mean time all the fundraising and activities done will keep the children afloat. They will know someone cares, that the movie nights, basket ball games and football screening are all in the hope of making a change, however small.

Esther’s compassion for these children is evident from the start of the interview but I ask if it takes a toll on her sometimes. Yes, she admits, it has its frustrating moments as in the case of acquiring sponsors. She is quick to add that anything else would probably be just as frustrating. She has a support system holding the cause together, right from her mother volunteering her car to her friend’s doctor offering to do a free surgery on a little girl with a uterine tumor. She has made many friends since she started the Forty days over forty smiles project. She has also lost some. Sacrifices have had to be made but she doesn’t regret any. At the end of the day she knows that at least one child smiled because of the 40/40 family.

What would normally be spent on a night out is now donated to help the children. Mornings that some of her friends would ordinarily spend nursing a hung over are foregone because of prior commitments to events like the monthly breakfasts with the children and the fundraising basketball and football games. Not every one of her friends has been willing to do all of these things but the turn up at the events has always been awe-inspiring.

As we conclude the interview, I mention that I have joined the group on Facebook  Esther laughs. She says there are people who have left the group in the past because she “spams” their timelines with the latest news about the children, and includes a budget on which money has been spent on what (to the last shilling on salt) and how much more is needed. She wants the people who are too busy to be present but keep donating to know what their generosity is doing.

The bigger dream is in the works. A fund has been started in the hopes of building a self-sustaining business for the children so that they do not need to depend on donations daily. “I do not know what the business will be just yet, but I hope we can move on to another orphanage thereafter…and then another”

A version of this article was published here and you can find out how you can help here.

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One year of 40-40

Nothing could have ever prepared me for the love, dedication, heart break and lessons I was going to experience after simply clicking a few buttons on my keyboard.

The story of 40 days over 40 smiles is  one I have had to tell countless times but I do not tire of it..Rather, I feel like people have heard it over and over again, maybe they are bored…but you know what? That is okay because perhaps when the voices are all burnt out..the echoes shall remain.

There have been numerous miracles from the day we began and I do not really know how to group them but I am going to try. I need a summary but I do not know how to do that. Gosh. Here goes nothing!

The beginning

I decided to give something back. simple.

Without talking to anyone about it or properly planning..I got onto facebook and opened a page. I love children. I love smiles and smileys too. Like this 🙂

I was doing this for lent-40 days of fasting to give back to someone who does not have half of what we have..40 days..what does it rhyme with? I don’t know but how about 40 days of fasting to bring smiles to over 40 children..huh huh? The name was born ” 40 days..over 40 smiles :)” yes..the smiley too for good measure.

I opened it on Feb 27th, 5 days after the Ash Wednesday (beginning of lent)

The idea was to collect toys, books, clothes, shoes and other items for vulnerable children. I thought paediatric units of hospitals  and orphanages would be ideal but I didn’t know how/when/which/where/who.

It all worked out somehow.

How?

Like I said, I had no plan. I simply added friends to the group and put my contact plus intention.

Before I knew it, a friend offered her bakery Milestones to be a collecting point, another friend told me about a chef whom we could pay to prepare ‘fancy’ meals, my lovely mum let me use her car to ferry all these things that I packed in the garage at home and I used my phone to receive cash contributions via mobile money although some people met me in person.

When/Where/Who?

We settled on God’s grace orphanage , Kyebando and Make the Children smile, Nateete. Total number of children was about 150 for both homes. I was joined by between 30-35 friends on each day.

It was so humbling 🙂

This was on Good Friday, April 6 and Saturday 7th respectively

The funding

*That morning when I opened the page on facebook, I did not have a penny to ‘invest. ’All I had was a dream, not even a plan on how to execute it.  Nothing.

At the end of 40 days, I had 3.1 million shillings, toys, clothes, shoes  and lots of questions. How am I supposed to do all this? What was I thinking..? *These were the thoughts going through my head*

One day I wrote on a friend’s wall and told him I expected half a million from him for the kids. The next day, I received a mobile money message. 500,000 exactly. I wept then called him and thanked him.

I was to get  countless similar wonders..till this day.

We fed over 150 children from two orphanages that Easter weekend, distributed a truck load of supplies and witnessed the joy of giving.

DSC03658

The kids ate to their fill..psyche! They wanted more of the yummy stuff

Our diva who has since grown..Little Daisy and Aunt Pearl:)

Our diva who has since grown..Little Daisy and Aunt Pearl:)

They showed us some moves

"We are happy to receive you 'welocome

“We are happy to receive you ‘welocome

Then we said, shyyaa…even us we can dance…

Do you see us? a.k.a mutulaba? :P

Do you see us? a.k.a mutulaba? 😛

That was when the love affair began.

*Throughout the year, we have raised and spent a little over 40 million shillings.

How did we get all of this? Mostly through nagging, begging, fundraising and some more nagging..but with the kindest most sympathetic  audience ever.

We have had two basketball games to fundraise dubbed ” Hoops for Grace.” Together, they have raised approximately 4 million.

No jokes!

No jokes!

We had the first ever charity bazaar. Who knew!! We pulled it off…A lot of planning and marketing went into it..but with a team like mine, even the seemingly impossible can be achieved.

Hundreds of people supported, hundreds! They gave us stuff to sale, others bought tables, most came and shopped. We got our kids a whooping 5 million shillings that we used to put up bathrooms, purchase a tent and take care of other needs.

Shop till you drop

Shop till you drop

Ruyonga and Nyonyozi performed..you didn’t know?

Battle cry...what what?

Battle cry…what what?

We have also had a charity soccer match, screened matches to raise funds, sold 40-40 memorabilia and basically done anything possible to raise awareness. Social media is your friend!

3,500sh only, You want?? Naawe

3,500sh only, You want?? Naawe

The Lord has blessed us with networks of friends everywhere. We have received donations from as far as Germany, USA,Belgium and Canada among others

Bree who is part of our team has been in charge of Online donations. Her own initiative I may add.

Originally 1,832$ was raised and used to put up a garden, mushroom farm and also take care of some scholarstic and health needs.

Damale garden

The online fund to raise money for a permanent home for the kids  is currently standing at 5,674$. I am not even kidding! Check the link  I shared. Spread the word. You never know who can join us to make the forever home dream a reality.

Some very impressive individual fundraisers have contributed to this sum;

Jordyn held one at Studio 82 in Calgary (don’t ask me how to get there) and raised  2,100$, Kaitlin had a volleyball fundraiser at her Her High School in the U.S and got 2,000 $ while Greta who is currently in Uganda asked her family and friends to donate to God’s grace instead of buying her presents for her birthday this February. This month of love raised almost 800$!!

Even as I write about all this I am awed.We made one year on Wednesday 27th. I kept kidding that people should buy me cake..Sadly,I didn’t get cake *sob* but this morning my friend Daniel sent 300,000. The message read “Giving is a blessing, your birthday gift.” That trounces cake, right? majorly!

Whatever we buy for the children using this amount, I shall always remember him and our year of service.

The Mighty team

Did I mention members of my team are pretty young, barely working their first  jobs, unemployed or still in school?

When I added friends on the page, they added other friends and the cycle continued. I did not even ask for their consent.* Apologies*  From these friends, we put together a team that works tirelessly behind the scenes to make sure the children are fed, stay in school and keep healthy. Again I shall say I never once called upon a single individual, they somehow just appeared in the right place at the right time.

We hold weekly meetings where all the magic is performed.

The team = 40 40 ambassadors.

I often feel guilty because we barely have any budget for transport, airtime or any other logistical assistance. They provide their services especially their time without complaining.

Of course we have fights now and then, especially when things are not working out and we are under a lot of pressure but we have always solved these issues amicably.

These friends who have now become my family come up with initiatives like the 5k campaign, volunteer to cook when there is need, provide transport, music,photography and publicity. They run the events like they are paid to.

I must say, everyone I work with would be an asset to any company.

The best part is that we have managed to work well without having any ‘big’ names putting their stamp of approval or wealthy parents to fund/motivate us.

This team is made up of super men and women that I honestly do not deserve.

The difference in our lives

Whereas a Saturday morning would otherwise be spent nursing a hangover, I see lots of people join us for our breakfast with the kids, a monthly event in which we bond with the children, play, dance and try to instill family values the best way we can. One time we even had over 100 visitors, more people than the kids at the time!! We are required to meet at 9.00 am and it always humbles me when people keep time or call to say “Don’t leave me, I am on my way” because they could be anywhere but choose to spend that time with the children.

On addition to this, we always put up a budget on our page for people to fund our breakfast. Not once have we failed to get funding, never! We always have people supporting us, in fact in January one particular person funded the entire breakfast. Blessings all over. wulululu!

The famous porridge at the monthly breakfasts

The famous porridge at the monthly breakfasts

Digging in

Digging in

One day a friend of mine sent me this message “Thanks for the 40/40 family i have made friend & i talk more with this family than i do with my real family. & those kids are the reason am still living. Thank you”

He probably does not remember that but I saved it and often when I feel discouraged, I turn to it.

A couple of friends have encouraged me by saying I shared my life and my dream with them and it gave them purpose but the way I see it, They gave me purpose.

While everyone believes these children are needy and dependent on all our donations or so, the truth is that we actually depend on them too. We get joy and satisfaction that a great job or fantastic partner may never provide.

Two weeks ago my friend Sharon was leaving the country and she needed to see the children she had heard so much about before she left. I was quite ill but I forced myself to contain it because I knew once there, all else would cease to matter…and you know what? It worked!!

Total remedy for bad days and joy to share the good ones

Total remedy for bad days and joy to share the good ones

The very first time we visited the children as a group, a little girl who goes by the title ‘Pastor’ Emily said a prayer that brought grown men/women to prayers. Since then we have had so many special moments that are PRICELESS

Oh nana what's my name?:)

Oh nana what’s my name?:)

I took Joan  to the orphanage as she too had been so excited about seeing the kids. It was an ordinary day but there was an extraordinary present waiting for me. A bracelet the kids made for me when they learnt bead work. I love it to bits!!

At our Christmas party last year we made sure every child had a gift. They were not that fancy but well, we did our best. As I left one of the older boys Farouk followed me,and said ‘Merry Christmas’ then he handed me a band that has the words ‘Soldier of God’ inscribed on it. He gave me the little he had 😥

The little things:)

The little things:)

The children

The amazing children at God’s grace have a couple of things in common. They are polite and God fearing. In fact one day a friend remarked “Do you train these children to say nice to meet you to everyone?” My answer was a smile..but honestly, they are just polite. Sometimes they even kneel down to greet you and you are like erm…..get up, it’s only me.

The lovely Scovia and Aunt Brenda

The lovely Scovia and Aunt Brenda

So, I have kept some letters that are dear to my heart..with all their typos and innocence 🙂

He is still home, didn't go back to the street :)

He is still home, didn’t go back to the street 🙂

Letter-Peace

They love, and they share and they bless you and and…they are simply amazing

:)Just look at them

🙂
Just look at them

The Drama

It can’t all be a joy ride can it? We have had communication problems, financial issues and everything else that can possibly come with handling  a project like this.

The clothes you wear or the car you drive are under scrutiny..perhaps you swindled the cash, after all it is the Ugandan way, right?

We booked a venue, UMA- Lugogo for our bazaar and a few days to D-day we find out we spoke to someone who didn’t tell the right person so we have to cancel the event. *Shoot me* We were under a lot of pressure but it somehow worked.

Did I mention the the breakfast when when we dug our garden and a certain group of models went to their page and advertised how they planted trees and literally changed the kid’s lives in one day. Half the story was a lie but well, their loss.

I haven’t even told you about the ‘local celebrity‘ who joined us at the orphanage then after I told him to bond with the kids he asked “Do you have play station?” with a straight face.

These are just minor incidents I can share, there have been real excruciating conundrums..hihi

Beautiful Imperfection

The journey has been lovely and extremely eye opening. Through it all the Lord has given us guidance because in all honesty we had no idea what we were doing. He has been so kind and gracious beyond our wildest imaginations.

I cannot thank each and everyone enough for being  there with us either from the start or along the way to get us to where we are now. I have been moved to tears several times and made speechless on more than one occassion.

This could have ended that one weekend in 2012…but it didn’t..and with good reason.

The kindness of friends and strangers alike has left me not only believing in mankind but being proudly associated too.

In the words of a fellow 40-40 family member,Benjy,  “Today is one year, let’s do a lifetime!”

Happy Birthday to the most amazing child we could ever raise, 40 days..over 40 smiles 🙂

Yeah!

Yeah!